The Beat Bush Brigades
But wait a minute. Isn't it the job of the Democratic Party to build the infrastructure that beats Republicans? Historically, yes. There once were great urban machines, organized down to the precinct level, that churned out Democratic votes every election year, providing the margins of victory for Democratic presidential candidates like Harry Truman and John Kennedy and keeping Congress reliably Democratic. The party and its allies in labor were once so good at grassroots politicking that there remains a lingering sense that the Democrats are the masters of the grassroots. But as Rosenthal notes, the machines of old "got very, very rusty."
In the 1990s, when Rosenthal reorganized the AFL-CIO's political operations to get union activists knocking on doors again, he recalls, "I kept hearing back from labor people who said, 'It's really lonely out here.'" Even as labor drives increased the percentage of the overall electorate that came from union households--from 19 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2000--turnout among other traditionally progressive constituencies slackened. At the same time, the Republican Party and groups associated with it were implementing sophisticated voter identification and mobilization strategies. One example was the "72-Hour Program," which former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed developed in 2002 to help the Georgia GOP displace Democratic Governor Roy Barnes and Senator Max Cleland in a stunning pair of upsets.
The 2002 election results were a wake-up call for progressives. It was no surprise that Democrats had been outspent, but what was surprising was the level of coordination between Republican media and grassroots initiatives and the strength of the GOP's get-out-the-vote push. Susan Shaer, executive director of Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), says, "2002 scared people. There was this realization that there ain't no Democratic precinct captains out there in a lot of the states." Much was made of the fact that Republicans picked up Congressional seats, reversing a historic mid-term pattern, but that did not begin to tell the full story of the collapse of Democratic fortunes. Following the 2002 election, Democrats fell back to the same number of House and Senate seats they held after the devastating "Republican revolution" election of 1994, which tossed the Democrats out of power in Congress for the first time in forty years. And the debacle went deeper. For the first time since 1952, Republicans held more state legislative seats than Democrats did. Those 2000 maps that showed so many states colored red for Bush were starting to look less like anomalies and more like a fate Democrats would have to resign themselves to.
The party apparatus has withered in much of the nation. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chair, promised a "rural initiative" to move resources and staff into states such as North Dakota and Montana, but the money never really flowed. You can now drive for hundreds of miles across the Western United States without touching a county where the party has a viable local organization. In the South, a decline in party fortunes that can be traced to the civil rights era has accelerated to a point where Democrats this year had a hard time recruiting statewide candidates in states like Georgia and Texas, which they dominated into the 1990s. In the Midwest, Democrats hold fewer state legislative seats than at any time since 1962. In Ohio, a state where Democrats controlled both US Senate seats, the governorship and the State Assembly as recently as 1990, the party now holds no statewide constitutional offices. For all his talk of rebuilding the party, McAuliffe has actually been presiding over its steady decline. And his one presumed strength, an ability to raise huge sums of unregulated "soft money," was, on the morning after the 2002 vote, choked off by the new McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act.
McCain-Feingold barred national parties from collecting unlimited and largely unregulated soft-money contributions from unions and corporations and then distributing that money to state parties--as they did with more than $470 million in 2002--to pay for everything from television commercials to get-out-the-vote drives. Thus, even if McAuliffe and the DNC could get their act together, the party no longer has the financial flexibility to implement the sort of campaign needed to offset the advantages of the Bush/Cheney re-election effort and the Republican National Committee, both of which are flush with cash raised from their broader bases of well-off "hard-money" donors.
To fill the void, Rosenthal and other veteran political players, including Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List; Harold Ickes, former Clinton White House aide; Jim Jordan, former Kerry campaign manager; and Cecile Richards, former aide to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, have created what friends and foes describe as a "shadow party." Taking advantage of a loophole in Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code that allows independent political groups to continue raising and spending soft money, these groups are well on their way to collecting close to $200 million from wealthy liberals and allied labor and issue-advocacy groups ranging from the AFL-CIO to the League of Conservation Voters and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.
The money is being used to construct a network of new organizations that does indeed look, in many senses, like a political party. For a start, there's the Media Fund, headed by Ickes, which serves as the coalition's television advertising arm. America Coming Together, a collaboration between labor unions and issues groups, led by Malcolm and Rosenthal, is organizing grassroots voter contact and mobilization. America Votes is an umbrella organization financed by contributions from more than two dozen unions and issues groups and run by Richards, who serves as a "traffic cop" to avoid duplication of effort by organizations such as the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the NAACP National Voter Fund and the Service Employees International Union. The Thunder Road Group, named for a Bruce Springsteen song and led by Jordan, is responsible for research and coordinating rapid responses to Bush campaign attacks. The Victory Campaign 2004 serves as the combined fundraising arm for ACT and the Media Fund, pulling in huge contributions from the likes of Hyatt hotel heir Linda Pritzker, who gave $4 million. Soros has ponied up $5 million for ACT, while Progressive Corporation CEO Peter Lewis is in for $3 million.